Promoting the Passion

The Latrell Sprewell incident was in high gear. Sports talk shows, like those on Boston’s WEEI radio, were discussing nothing but the case of the basketball star who choked his own coach. Then, crackling over the airwaves, came the Sports Flash, WEEI’s 20-minute update.

“Merrimack Warriors hockey coach Ron Anderson announced that Cris Classen will be starting in goal tonight against top-ranked Boston University. Said Anderson, ‘It was the proper, ethical thing to do.'”

Of course, Anderson had said no such thing. The sound bite had used an authentic Warriors quote, one that had already been heard on the show, but one of the Golden State Warriors discussing their disciplinary actions against Sprewell rather than the Merrimack Warriors discussing their goaltending rotation.

The culprit behind the humorous injection of college hockey into the discussion had been Sean Grande, WEEI’s Sports Director and Hockey East’s new play-by-play announcer.

“Hey, we gotta get college hockey some airtime, too,” he says with the grin of the class clown who has slipped a whoopee cushion into the teacher’s chair.

Grande, who teams with former UNH All-American Cap Raeder on Sportschannel New England Game of the Week broadcasts, is pretty much the lone missionary for college hockey on Boston’s all-sports talk radio station. Dale Arnold, a WEEI host and Boston Bruins broadcaster, champions the sport of hockey in general, but Grande is the collegiate game’s voice.

“Why don’t you talk about college hockey?”

Given his position, some wonder why Grande doesn’t get more than the occasional reference to the sport on the air.

“In college hockey circles,” he says, “I hear it all the time. ‘Why don’t you talk about college hockey?’ The answer to that question is very simple. We’re not the newspaper.

“In a newspaper, once people buy the paper they can read anything they want. The paper has accomplished its goal of having you buy the paper. A radio station requires listeners, the most listeners possible, and that means talking about the headline issue that day.

“I’ve been ripped at the station, mostly in jest, about trying to interject college hockey. It does take a lot of pleading. Last year, I remember going on all day long for people to watch the BU-Michigan national semifinal game. It turns out it was rewarding because the next day people were talking about it on the air. ‘That was a great game last night. What a great game. What a great story that was.’

“Sometimes you can push your own agenda like that. But during football season, that’s not going to happen. We have to talk about college hockey and grow it, and make people aware of the game to the point where it is what most people want talked about.”

“Is women’s college basketball a better product than college hockey?”

Making college hockey more visible to the masses — making it what most people want talked about — is easier said than done.

“Television is very important,” says Grande. “I’m going to get myself in trouble here, but in college hockey there are two mentalities. The prevailing one among the people already in it is that we’ve got the greatest thing going…and if other people don’t care about it and if we don’t become popular in the mass media or nationally, who cares, because we have it and we love it. That is the prevailing attitude.

“I think you encounter that in any profession — the fear of exposing what you have and becoming bigger — because everything is very manageable now. College hockey is very manageable.

“[The other attitude] is, we have the greatest product in the world. Let’s wake everybody else up.

“It is just a shame to me to see the proliferation of college basketball games on national television [while college hockey gets so little]. I love the game of basketball, but sometimes you shake your head.

“I’ll get myself in more trouble now. Women’s college basketball. Title IX is a very important thing. It’s very significant. I think women’s athletics are great and I wish them all the success in the world.

“But is women’s college basketball a better product than college hockey? Their championship game is on national television. Their game is on constantly. Their game is on this weekend. But you can’t find a college hockey game. You just can’t.”

So then, how can the sport best showcase itself in its limited TV exposure?

“We’ve got to make it exciting,” says Grande. “The Western leagues are very much ahead of the Eastern leagues in television coverage. They know exactly what they want to do. They present their game very well. They do a lot of unique things with sound — miking referees and miking coaches. It’s very interactive. That’s the kind of stuff we want to get involved in.”

It hasn’t taken the SportsChannel team long to implement that idea. In its first broadcast, the Jan. 10 game between Boston College and Maine, viewers got to hear, for example, Black Bear coach Shawn Walsh’s late-game instructions, exhorting his troops to avoid high turnovers at all costs.

Of course, conveying the unique atmosphere of a college hockey game has limitations, too. Miking the referee and coaches may work well, but miking the crowd itself could broadcast some chants better left off the airwaves.

“You do it more visually,” says Grande. “People bring signs to the rivalry games. Give viewers a flavor of what’s out there. I tell you, I’m not much of a cook, nor was anyone in my family, but before I got to BU I didn’t know what a sieve was.

“There are some unique things to college hockey. College hockey has all the great things that the other college sports have, that college football has and college basketball has. Things that the NHL could never have. And it’s hockey. It’s a very unique product.”

A product with major stars like Chris Drury, Jason Krog, Marty Reasoner and Steve Kariya. While trying to convey the rivalries and atmosphere inherent to college hockey, should the broadcast team also be looking to trumpet its top individual attractions?

“While marketing the individuals is something that probably should be done more of, remember that SportsChannel and Fox New England are going to be doing these games long after Chris Drury and the individual players are gone,” says Grande. “You want to establish an identity with those players, because [that will help] when they’re playing in the NHL.

“But if you want to stress individuals that are going to put the league over and help raise consciousness about the league regionally and nationally, let’s talk about Paul Kariya. Let’s talk about Brian Leetch. Let’s talk about Tony Amonte.

“I would like to see more connection between college hockey and the NHL. You may see highlights [on NHL broadcasts] of players when they played in the league. You may see Shawn McEachern scoring the winning goal in the championship game against Garth Snow. Hey, you know these two guys now; well, they were involved in a great Hockey East moment.

“The NHL’s stance, naturally, is ‘What can you do for us?’ We can do a lot for them. Has college basketball helped the NBA? Sure it has. It isn’t the same thing because of the other sources of players playing in the NHL, but [the basis for mutual benefit is still there].”

The personalities of a broadcast team can also go a long way to maximizing the entertainment viewers can experience. Grande’s quick wit, a major-league 98-mile-an-hour fastball if there ever was one, shines through.

In the initial SportsChannel broadcast, Grande and Raeder were faced with a unique challenge — making an inherently-boring scoreless tie interesting. With Maine missing a boatload of players for various reasons, Walsh employed a defensive-shell style of play, so much so that after the contest ended, he opened his comments to the press with, “Sorry to have to bore you guys to death, but that’s what we had to do.”

Although the assumption holds that most games will sell themselves, this one needed an entertainment injection by the broadcast team. Not everyone can make a 0-0 game interesting. SportsChannel viewers were not let down.

As the game neared the end of regulation, Grande noted that BC’s last scoreless tie was against Fordham in 1920. He then turned to Raeder and asked, “So what was that game like, Cap?”

Minutes later, when BC’s Brian Gionta leaped over Maine goaltender Alfie Michaud to avoid a collision while the netminder covered up the puck, Grande improvised. “Gionta be nimble. Gionta be quick. Gionta jumped over Michaud’s stick.”

Though not quite sufficient to put him in the Hall of Fame, that quip was but one example that Hockey East got the right guy.

“I would like to think that Cap and I will have a lot of fun, be entertaining and people will want to listen,” he says, “but this is not the Sean Grande and Cap Raeder show. This is about college hockey and exposing the product and being excited about what’s going on.”

“When you with fall in love with something, you gobble it up”

Grande came to the collegiate game comparatively late, but made up for lost time in a hurry.

“Someday my mother will release them to humiliate me, but there are tapes of me doing play-by-play off the television when I was five or six years old,” says Grande. “From the time when I was 12, [when] I realized that I wasn’t going to play second base for the Mets, I knew my only shot at the major leagues was play-by-play.”

So Grande headed off to BU and discovered college hockey accidentally.

“The first game I went to was a BU-BC game in Walter Brown Arena in 1987,” he recalls. “Dan Shea scored the winning goal for BC. It was a sellout crowd and an unbelievable atmosphere. I had always loved hockey growing up as a Ranger fan, but the college game hadn’t meant anything to me.

“But after that first game, it became a passion. When you fall in love with something, you gobble it up. You take in everything. You read everything there is to read.

“I’d go to the library to research some paper I was writing, do five minutes of research, and then look at old Boston Globe stuff on the [ECAC] playoffs in 1978 and the national championship.”

By his junior year, he was broadcasting the BU games on the student station and “majoring in college hockey.” Luck was with him, because that season, 1989-90, marked the Terriers’ turnaround after two consecutive losing campaigns. Then, in his senior year, BU — with players like Tony Amonte, Shawn McEachern, Keith Tkachuk, Peter Ahola and Scott Lachance — lost the now-legendary triple-overtime national championship game to Northern Michigan, 8-7.

“I don’t know what I’ll accomplish, or what level I’ll get to, or how many games I’ll end up doing at the major league level, or whatever will happen to me as an announcer, but I doubt if anything will mean as much to me as doing the national championship game in ’91,” says Grande.

“It was a game I ended up doing by myself because the station couldn’t afford to send my partner out. So I ended up doing a four-hour hockey game by myself up there in St. Paul. It was a great thrill. To this date, I can rattle off the lines for Northern Michigan.

“It was an unbelievable night. When you’re a student covering a team, it’s like you’re a player. You don’t know if you’re going to get to the next level or not. You don’t know if you’re going to continue as a professional, so that game means everything to you.”

“You can’t make a living broadcasting college hockey games”

From there, Grande interned at WEEI until “they felt sorry for me, so they gave me a job,” worked behind the scenes while learning the business, and capitalized on the broadcasting assignments that came his way. Over time, a Beanpot gig with Arnold on WEEI led to broadcasting BU games on WABU-TV68, which led to being considered for openings this past summer broadcasting either the Boston Bruins or Boston Celtics.

When neither of the two opportunities with the professional teams worked out, Grande was available for the SportsChannel job. Although the position wasn’t his first choice and the “major leagues” are his ultimate objective, he didn’t view broadcasting Hockey East games as simply a launching pad to the big time.

“From the time I was 12 years old, my goal has been to make it to major-league level,” he says. “It’s my goal and it’s always been my goal.

“You can’t make a living broadcasting college hockey games. There’s just not enough of them. But college hockey in general, and Hockey East in particular, are separate from my stepping-stone agenda.

“Doing this particular job is different for me because of my emotional attachment to it. There are other jobs that I’ve done where it was more of stepping-stone situation. You’re always passionate about what you do, and I’m passionate about play-by-play in any game that I do.

“But, [for example,] I did the [minor league] Providence Bruins once when they were doing fill-in games a few years ago [during the NHL strike]. That was about getting work at that level and performing at that level.

“There’s always a bigger picture in the back of your mind. But this is separate for me, because it’s been such a passion of mine. My ideal situation would be to become a major-league broadcaster and still be able to do college hockey is well. You could certainly do that in baseball or football.”

Recently he hit the big time, at least for one game, filling in on play-by-play for a Celtics radio broadcast when the regular announcer couldn’t get back to Boston because of a snowstorm.

Until such random occurrences become the routine, however, Grande will continue with his odd marriage of sports talk radio and play-by-play announcer.

“Especially in this part of the country where [sports talk] has become increasingly negative and satirical, it’s like having your left foot and your right foot both planted, and there’s an earthquake and two sides separate and you’re being pulled apart,” he says. “It’s a little bit difficult now to do both just because of the nature of it.

“The station in general, and the show that I’m on in particular, are just about entertainment. We love the games, but it’s about doing some Latrell Sprewell jokes, some Mike Tyson jokes and some bits about Michael Irvin. We’ve gone in this direction and ratings have been phenomenal. It’s an interesting dual life.”

“Is playing on TV a reward? Yeah, it’s a reward”

SportsChannel’s emphasis on the marquee schools in its schedule at the expense of others — most notably Merrimack and UMass-Amherst, both of whom were omitted — raised the hackles on some necks around the league.

“If the package only includes nine games in the regular season, which is the plan, it’s going to be hard to create a situation where getting everybody on is a priority,” says Grande. “Remember that SportsChannel is putting itself in this position knowing that this was a money-loser for NESN. Despite that, they still want to jump in the boat.

“So, number one, you’ve got to understand the commitment for SportsChannel — and it should be — is to put the best game on. Is playing on TV a reward? Yeah, it’s a reward.

“Number two, if the league or schools raise money, more games can be on. That remains a possibility, too.

“The one-word answer to the situation is patience. There’s a big picture and this is a three-year deal. We’re trying to accomplish something for the whole league.

“If it means that BU, BC and Maine are going to be on three, four or five times this year, understand that there’s a reason for it. It’s not like it’s going to be that way forever. That’s not the intention, because that doesn’t help anybody either. We want every team to be marketable and every team to be attractive on television, but that takes patience.”